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Where have all the ‘Kenyans’ gone?

“Where have all the Kenyans gone?” Your reply to my question might be: “Where have all your senses gone? Have you finally lost your marbles? Kenyans are all around you, in all sizes, shapes and colours. Check out all their passports and identity cards. They are all Kenyans, over thirty million of them.”

So, are you a Kenyan? Let’s run a few tests:

Are you a Kikuyu who thinks most Luos are headstrong and arrogant, and would be very dangerous if given power?

Are you a Luo who thinks most Kikuyus are cunning and money-minded, and utterly untrustworthy in government?

Are you a Luhya who thinks that the vice-presidency should be reserved for your community, based on the power of your tribal voting bloc?

Are you a Kamba who thinks all parastatals located physically within ‘your’ locality should be headed and run by members of your tribe?

Are you an Indian who thinks other Kenyans are lazy and unreliable, and not to be trusted with money?

Are you a Christian who thinks Muslims do not worship the same God as you, because your God is based on love and compassion, and theirs on hatred and exclusion?

Are you a corporate executive, spending all your working and social hours with other executives from the same class as yourself?

Are you a mother totally focused on your own children, unable to extend even a fraction of the same concern to other, troubled children you come across every day, because they’re not ‘your problem’?

If you were being honest, and found yourself answering ‘yes’ to any of these questions, then accept that like most of us, you are not a ‘Kenyan at’ all. You are a tribesperson, a religious adherent, a representative of a social class, a skin colour, a family member. That is what defines you, motivates you and comforts you. Your ‘Kenyanism’ is just a skin you wear. The beating heart beneath the skin is driven by an altogether narrower set of concerns.

So I repeat my question: “Where have all the Kenyans gone?” A Kenyan in the sense of my question, you see, is not just someone born in this country or living in it. A Kenyan is not just someone with a piece of paper bestowing nationality. A Kenyan is not just someone wearing the fake smile of patriotism and speaking the insincere words of nationalism. A Kenyan is someone who loves Kenya – as a place and a set of peoples – with a great passion. A Kenyan is someone who acts in the interest of all Kenyans. A Kenyan is a person who unites people regardless of ethnicity or tribe. A Kenyan is a person who thinks and acts outside his little box of tribe, religion, skin colour, or social class.

We are facing a great shortage of such persons in this country, and it is costing us dearly. It is not a minor matter. Economic development cannot come without the presence of cohesion and consensus in the economy. We have great diversity in this country, yes, and it should be a source of great competitive advantage. I wrote last week that this diversity should be celebrated, and I remain convinced that it has contributed greatly to what limited economic success we have had as a nation. Yet, our petty and parochial concerns keep us from unleashing the true power of diversity. We prefer to accentuate our differences in a very negative way. We prefer to construct little boxes to live in. We are unable to breathe the sweet, liberating air of the higher planes of life.

Because of this, we are retarding our own progress. Politically, our tribal suspicions prevent us from having an inclusive government we can all believe in. Instead, we resort to tribal and regional parties because we cannot believe anything else could truly represent our interests. Our constitutional reform effort is at a standstill precisely because of the hidden sectarian agendas that are strangling it.

In the business world, our parastatals never prosper because every new chief executive who arrives immediately starts populating the place with his kinsmen, clansmen and tribesmen. If he does not do this, he will suffer the wrath of his clan elders and the MPs from his region. In the private sector, we are persisting with outdated enterprise models that require business owners to keep a tight grip on cash. Senior executives, instead of dealing with strategic issues, spend most of their time in exerting ‘eyeball’ control of the business and reconciling reports, paranoid about the slightest whiff of fraud. Business processes are inefficient because we build in layer after layer of checks and double-checks.

Socially, we live behind closed walls secure in the bosom of our families, religions and perceived kindred spirits. We make no attempt to understand the diversity around us. We do not revel in the customs, rites, and idiosyncrasies of those unlike us; instead, we revile them and are suspicious of them. Because of this suspicion, we have sects within churches and factions within cults. Our span of activity becomes narrower and narrower.

With this limited vision of the world, we have been unable to see very far, and it shows. It is fashionable and convenient to blame all our woes on our leaders, but is that the whole truth? We get the leaders we deserve. We elect those who sound like us and reflect our petty values. The poison spewed by our leaders is also in our own hearts. ‘Thou are that’, is an old Sanskrit aphorism. They are we, and it is we who must change.

Yet we need a generation of leaders who can point out the path, and walk on it before us. Today, tribal chieftains and close-minded clerics afflict us. Our MPs find comfort only in tribal groupings, and tribal considerations taint their every pronouncement. Our business leaders live in the rarefied atmosphere of affluence and newfound sophistication; they can no longer ‘see’ the common people. To them, ordinary life is now a concept, not an experience.

The president said something very meaningful in a recent speech: “Do our words and deeds unify our nation or do they but plant a seed of hatred? Are you loyal to your individual cause or to the national good?” Great words, but was anyone listening? His cabinet ministers feel no shame in publicly failing his test. MPs feel no embarrassment in convening press conferences to talk blinkered and bigoted balderdash. These people pollute us with every word they utter. They must be shut out.

So, if there are any ‘Kenyans’ out there: speak up, we can’t hear you!

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